Few bands embody heaviness quite like Pomona, California’s Xibalba. Their peculiar brand is a bludgeoning potion of 90s death metal, beatdown hardcore, and downtuned sludge. Take the sheer girth of Crowbar, the bulldozing, decelerated grooves of Machine Head’s rawest mid 90s live performances, Morbid Angel’s nauseating trem-picked thrashing, and pepper it with a slightly pitch-bended, Latino version of Martin VanDrunen’s (Ex-Pestilence, Asphyx) pained wails and the picture becomes clear. The band generated a decent amount of hype with self-released debut Madre Mia Gracias Por Locos in 2011, which led to a deal with Southern Lord Records and the release of 2012’s Hasta La Muerte, arguably the album that propelled them into the underground metal stratosphere. Soon their name could be heard alongside contemporaries like Nails, Harm’s Way, and Suburban Scum, the latter with which Xibalba released one of the best split EPs in recent memory to satiate the appetites of fans awaiting another record. Enter 2015, where the band finished another gargantuan slab of punishing, chuggarific tunes in the form of Tierra Y Libertad.
It’s all systems go from the opening reverb drenched bellow that introduces ‘Enemigo’, which surprisingly is not a play on the words “enemy” and “amigo”, but rather the Spanish translation of ‘Enemy’. Part of Xibalba’s charm is their complete ownership of their heritage, choosing to list their song and album titles in Spanish, yet keeping the lyrics in English for maximum crossover potential. Gone are the more saturated and processed tones of the split EP, with band and producer Taylor Young (Nails, Twitching Tongues, Disgrace) opting instead for a return to the raw approach of the first two albums. This could work against them, especially for any fans who might have hopped on board with the release of the EP and prefer a more dense and compressed mix. Both production approaches compliment their sound, although the deep and roomy guitar mix for Tierra Y Libertad may be more appropriate for the grimy mood. Each muted, pregnant riff gristles forth like a dump truck full of emo cadavers climbing an additional pile of emo cadavers to make a deposit.
Unlike many of their contemporaries’ efforts, Tierra Y Libertad isn’t merely a collection of simple, girthy mosh anthems. Translated, the phrase means “Land and Liberty”, which is a slogan lifted from the Mexican Revolution. Sadly there are no lyrics available at the time of this writing, but if the beginning of second track ‘Guerrila’ is any indication of content, there are some metaphorical and symbolic undercurrents aligning with war history. Over a sped-up, backwards sample, singer Nate Rebolledo spits a riot-inducing manifesto about taking back land and liberty before yelling, “We are the guerrila!”, followed by a burly double bass riddled riff worthy of Domination era Morbid Angel. The death metal influence is abundant this go around, highlighting the heaviest and most memorable moments from the best in 90s Roadrunner and Earache Records artists. The marriage with hardcore and sludge is a refreshing approach, and it’s often baffling how well it works.
The purpose of the distorted and ominous ‘Pausa’ is unclear, as it clocks in at a mere 1:21 and could easily work as an outro to prior first single ‘Invierno’ or intro to the following punisher ‘En Paz Descanse’. The latter harkens back to early Hatebreed in the mid section, reminiscent of the best Satisfaction Is The Death Of Desire breakdowns doomed out at half speed. ‘Si Dios Quiere’ plods along in a similar fashion, weaving sludgy, corrosive, cakeface groove breaks with trem picked death metal goodness and mid-paced double bass frenzy. At points the drumming feels off the rails, like it could crash and fall apart at any minute. This is part of Xibalba’s charm. They don’t give a shit about click tracks, grids, triggers, or any of the hangups so many modern metal bands and producers seem concerned with. It’s refreshing to hear such a “warts and all” approach considering the state of the industry.
The biggest surprise of the album comes by way of closer ‘El Vacio’, or “vacuum”, a nearly thirteen minute doom metal epic that somehow never outstays its welcome. Somber clean guitars introduce the dirge, displaying the softest side of Xibalba anyone will probably see. Still, before long the song expands into a swampy riff toxic enough to medicate the most diehard doom fan. Whispered passages speak of despair as the track weaves back to cleaner pastures, before exploding into the most hilariously slow and crushing gunk filled chunk-a-thon. It doesn’t get much heavier than this, folks. The funeral doom harmonies of the closing passage are the perfect seal to the pulsating, pulverizing beast that is Tierra Y Libertad.
Many bands seem to release their best material with EP’s or one-off songs, and with Xibalba it’s difficult not to compare Tierra Y Libertad with the Suburban Scum split considering the short time between releases. Though the production values of the split may be more suitable in some respects, nothing is lost in pure unadulterated heaviness. With a broader scope and an iron disposition, Tierra Y Libertad stands triumphantly as a testament to Xibalba’s capabilities in the present and as an example for their future.